The Chief of Staff for Ontario's Housing Minister heavily steered the selection process for Greenbelt land removal in a manner that was "not transparent, objective, or fully informed," and showed "bias" and "preferential treatment" to certain developers, found a report released by Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk on Wednesday morning.

The long-awaited 95-page report on the controversial Greenbelt land swap follows months of investigation by Lysyk's office. It detailed evidence pointing to one staffer — Housing Minister Steve Clark's Chief of Staff — as having been influenced by specific suggestions from developers as to which lands would be removed from the Greenbelt.

In January, the government watchdog agreed to audit the financial and environment impacts of the Doug Ford government removing nearly 3,000 hectares of land from the protected Ontario Greenbelt — a two-million-acre stretch of protected farmland, forests, and wetlands in southern Ontario — and opening it up for the development of tens of thousands of homes.

When it was announced in late 2022, the removal drew significant backlash from both those concerned about the implications of building on environmentally sensitive land, and those raising an eyebrow at the coincidence of developers with connections to Ford having purchased now-freed-up Greenbelt land in the years immediately preceding its removal.

Ford has repeatedly insisted that no developers were tipped off about the boundary amendments, and has highlighted that, as part of the changes, 9,400 acres were added elsewhere to the Greenbelt.

An Indefensible Process

In her report, Lysyk describes a rushed selection process that raised serious concerns about decision making protocols being ignored. The six bureaucrats assigned to the selection team, and overseen by the Chief of Staff, were limited to just three weeks to make their selections and were restricted in terms of who they could speak to when assessing the lands.

The Chief of Staff identified 21 of the 22 sites the team considered for removal, of which 15 were selected. Of those 15, 14 came from the Chief of Staff.

"What occurred here cannot be described as a standard or defensible process," Lysyk wrote.

In one instance, Lysyk described the Chief of Staff being provided with packets from two developers in September 2022 at an event hosted by the Building Industry and Land Development Association, containing information on two sites in the Greenbelt: the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve in Pickering and a recently purchased site in the Township of King.

"About 92% of the acreage removed from the Greenbelt was from five land sites passed on to the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff from two developers, including a land site associated with a third developer," the report reads.

During the selection process, criteria to assess suitable lands were seemingly changed and dropped to ensure certain lands made the cut.

"When Housing Ministry staff informed the Housing Minister’s Chief of Staff that they could not assess infrastructure availability or servicing of the proposed sites within a three-week time frame and without contacting municipalities, the parameters were changed so they only needed to confirm whether the land sites were adjacent to a developed urban area," the report reads.

"Nineteen of the 22 proposed sites did not meet the one initial environmental/agricultural criterion because they included Natural Heritage System lands or a Specialty Crop designation. Before the sites were proposed to Cabinet for removal from the Greenbelt, that criterion was dropped."

Greenbelt Lands Weren't Needed

The selection process raised even more questions when considering the necessity, or lack there of, of the government’s decision.

According to the report, the Greenbelt changes were “not necessary to achieve government housing targets.” Notably, the Ministry of Housing had already allocated the entirety of the 1.5 million housing target to municipalities in October 2022, which was one month before the Greenbelt changes were announced and had been done so without the assumption of using Greenbelt land.

Additionally, Ontario’s Housing Affordability Task Force had previously determined that a land shortage was not the cause of the province’s housing crisis, and that Greenbelt lands did not need to be removed to build housing.

What’s more, Chief Planners in Durham, Hamilton and York — where the 15 removed sites are located — told the Auditor General’s office during their investigation that Greenbelt land was not needed to meet their housing targets assigned by the provincial government. They noted that “there is sufficient land outside the Greenbelt in their regions that is already or easily serviced.”

An Extremely Profitable Move For Developers

The audit found that the government did not carry out an assessment of how much the value of the Greenbelt land would increase by being removed. The Auditor General's report, however, estimates that the landowners of these 15 sites could see their value increase by $8.3B.

"The value of one area alone — lands in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve site in Durham Region — could rise by $6.63 billion," the report reads.

When asked about the implications of seemingly one staffer having the ability to generate billions of dollars in profit for developers — and why that staffer was still employed by the Minister of Housing — Lysyk said she has made a referral to Ontario's Integrity Commissioner to investigate whether there was a breach of duty.

The report stops short of placing blame on other parts of the Ford government, noting that Clark claimed to have not been aware of the key details of the selection process, though should have been.

In a press conference on Wednesday, when asked whether Ford had any involvement, Lysyk said that during her meeting with the Premier he insisted he had no involvement in the selection process. Lysyk did say, however, that she had met with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) about possible criminal acts, but declined to provide details.

"Whatever happens in the future will be up to the OPP," she said.

Uncooperative Developers

Lysyk's audit involved speaking with — or trying to speak with — developers who benefitted from the Greenbelt changes, but she described facing legal pushback from two.

Silvio De Gasperis of the TACC Group of companies made headlines in July for fighting back against a summons from Lysyk. In 2021, TACC acquired a property in Vaughan with then-protected Greenbelt land for $50M. This was added to a growing collection of Greenbelt lands De Gasperis owned, which also included parcels of farmland in north Pickering that he previously tried to transform into subdivisions. The Auditor General sought to review "any and all relevant records, correspondence, notes and documents in connection with the examination under oath regarding TACC Development's properties removed from the Greater Toronto Area Greenbelt."

De Gasperis asked the court to quash the summons, claiming that Lysyk was seeking to examine him "on matters on which he has no information beyond that of someone who is generally knowledgeable about the housing and development industry." He also claimed that the Auditor General's investigation was an "abuse of process" and went beyond her jurisdiction.

No Word Yet From Ontario Government

The Ford government appeared to be getting ahead of the report on Tuesday, pumping out a video across the social media channels of the premier and Conservative MPPS showcasing their efforts to build 1.5 million homes in Ontario.

Ford and Clark are expected to speak at a press conference on Wednesday at 1 pm to address the Auditor General's findings.

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